Not Everything We Know Is Wrong (But It’s Very Much Worth Questioning)

Trainer-teacher-learners familiar with Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking will be well-primed to appreciate and savor Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman’s engaging and well-documented treatise on how we make accurate and inaccurate decisions is, in some ways, reminiscent of what Ariely, Gladwell, and others have explored in terms of how irrational those decisions can sometimes be. It also takes us much deeper into understanding, by experiencing what he is describing, the ways we trick ourselves into thinking we are better at decision making than we actually are. And that certainly is something that we as trainer-teacher-learners will all benefit from recognizing.

We are, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, once again exploring one of our greatest leaning technology tools: the brain. We become aware of that tool at work as the author leads us through a variety of intriguing and cleverly effective exercises that make us aware of how we read, absorb information, react—and then make decisions that are far from rational. Displaying the playful and intellectually honest approach he takes to his subject and his research, Kahneman wins us over with stories about how even he—completely aware of how we fail to act on pertinent information available to us—falls into the trap of not making rational decisions or taking rational actions.

At the heart of Kahneman’s work is what he calls System 1 and System 2 thinking—warning us repeatedly that these two systems are “two fictitious characters.” In other words, these are short-hand terms for the ways we approach decision making (sometimes quickly; sometimes after engaging in intellectual efforts requiring plenty of work). By trying to differentiate between these illusory and overlapping approaches to decision making, Kahneman clearly engages in a concept familiar to all of us involved in workplace learning and performance: finding a memorable (or sticky) way to assure than we can absorb and retain information that may be new to us.

“This matters,” he explains, “because anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.” This is a point well worth considering and remembering as we design and deliver effective and results-driven workplace learning and performance opportunities for those who rely on us. “The fictitious systems make it easier for me to think about judgment and choice, and will make it easier to you to understand what I say.”

There is plenty in Thinking, Fast and Slow to make these concepts stick. In example after example—particularly in descriptions of how we reacted to the Love Canal environmental disaster of 1979 and the Alar scare of 1989 (the first focused on fears about the effects of toxic waste, the latter about potentially devastating effects from a chemical sprayed on apples)—we see how fear governs decisions. If we apply these lessons to workplace leaning and performance, we can easily see not only the need to identify and correct misperceptions early in the learning process, but also the need to instill in ourselves and our learners an awareness of how easily we can be affected and influenced by stressful, emotional situations and inaccurate sources of information with little regard to their veracity.

One of the most intriguing revelations comes in the “Two Selves” section. Kahneman documents how the final part of an experience tremendously shapes our perceptions of what actually occurred. A long, predominantly happy life, for example, is perceived as far less happy than it actually was if there is a relatively brief period of unhappiness near the end. Two equally painful experiences involving medical procedures are perceived to be quite different, regardless of the duration of the pain, if there is less pain at the end of the procedure. “What truly matters when we intuitively assess…episodes is the progressive deterioration or improvement of the ongoing experiences, and how the person feels at the end,” Kahneman observes.

For those of us delivering leaning opportunities, the obvious lesson to remember is that our offerings may be remembered less positively—and therefore be less effective in producing the level of change that successful learning experiences are designed to produce—if they do not end on a positive note.

The one place where Kahneman actually appears to undercut his own work comes in his concluding section. Having repeatedly led us down a path of questioning our Blink-like snap decisions as well as the more effortful conclusions we reach through more intensive explorations of the options placed before us, Kahneman reminds us that what he has called System 1 thinking “is indeed the origin of much that we do wrong, but it is also the origin of most of what we do right—which is most of what we do. Our thoughts and actions are routinely guided by System 1 and generally are on the mark.”This is reassuring after reading nearly 400 pages of examples of how our biases and misinterpretations lead us to questionable conclusions and decisions.

All of which leaves us with some clear and sobering material to digest: The more we are aware of the emotional trigger points that lead us and our learners to the conclusions we all reach, the better prepared we will be to work toward more effective decision making—recognizing, as Kahneman himself concludes, that knowing something is far different than being effectively able to incorporate it into all we do.

About Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist and winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. He is notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision making, behavioral economics, and hedonic psychology. With Amos Tversky and others, Kahneman established a cognitive basis for common human errors using heuristics and biases, and developed prospect theory. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work in prospect theory. In 2011, he was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers. In the same year, his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarizes much of his research, was published and became a best seller.